W.B.’s Book Report: Tommy James’ autobiography

The magic just grabs some people.

My cousin’s dear one shared his copy of a book by Tommy James called Me, the Mob and the Music, and I raced through the first half last night. It’s quite a tale.

It’s the story of a kid who was gripped by the magic early in life and singing in bar bands by the time he became a teenager. It’s the story of how he saw a rival band drive a crowd nuts with an obscure B-side called “Hanky Panky” and had his band record the song and score a regional hit in northern Indiana/southern Michigan when he was 16.

Then a Pittsburgh music promoter found the record in a sales bin and started playing it on the radio, where it became a No. 1 hit, and then Roulette Records picked it up and it went to No. 1 nationwide, and Tommy James was an “overnight sensation” at age 19.

Over the next three years Tommy James and the Shondells had about a dozen more hits, most of them not as huge as “Hanky Panky” but some of them at least as big if not bigger: “Say I Am,” “It’s Only Love,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Mirage,” “I Like the Way,” “Getting Together,” “Out of the Blue/Love’s Closing in On Me,” “Get Out Now,” “Mony Mony,” “Somebody Cares,” “Do Something to Me,” “Crimson and Clover,” “Sweet Cherry Wine,” “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “Ball of Fire,” and “She.”

The book is fun because, born six years after Tommy James, I had signed on as a fan, starting with “It’s Only Love” which was different enough from “Hanky Panky” to show he and his band had more serious chops than the average sixties Top 40 band. Maybe they weren’t the Beatles or the Beach Boys, but they weren’t one-hit wonders either. I bought every orange-and-yellow-labeled Tommy James and the Shondells song as soon as they came out.

I tended to “root” for bands as if they were sports teams, following the charts like most people follow the standings, and hitting No. 1 was like winning the World Series or the Super Bowl. Many of my “teams” were destined for the relative obscurity of cult favorite status — Judee Sill, Linda Perhacs, Slade, John Kongos — but Tommy James was a bona fide hitmaker there for a while.

They were able to kick things up a notch as needed. The freak success of “Hanky Panky” could have been the proverbial flash in the pan, but he was able to leverage that with “I Think We’re Alone Now” and, as that star started to fade, they came up with “Mony Mony,” and finally “Crimson and Clover” took it all to another level.

Reading the book is reliving those journeys up and down the charts and discovering the adventure that was happening behind the scenes, for little Roulette Records was, well, a little shadier than I realized at the time. (Did you notice the book’s name?)

For a little while I’m a teenager again, remembering those well-crafted three-minute bursts of creativity and vicariously living the fascinating journey that was/is Tommy James’ musical career. Such fun!

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